This I Believe

Julie - Alexandria, Virginia
Entered on May 5, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: children
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I Believe in Opening Presents at the Birthday Party

My eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son ride the circuit of birthday parties. Scarcely a weekend goes by without one, or both, of them attending the birthday party of a classmate. Upon the arrival of each invitation, we venture out to the toy department of the local mega-store to carefully select the perfect gift for the birthday boy or girl. Brows are furrowed, hands are wrung, the decision is taken very seriously.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s in rural Indiana, the presents were the sine qua non of the birthday party. Sure, cake was eaten, games were played but the real action was the presents. So I was surprised and disappointed to learn that in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in the early 21st century, opening presents at the party is the exception, not the rule.

I believe in opening presents at the birthday party. I’ve heard the various reasons for waiting until the guests are gone. Most of them revolve around avoiding jealousy or hurt feelings. Of course kids get jealous, but it’s important to accept the fact that 364 days of the year it’s not your birthday. And, anyway, a little bit of jealousy is small price to pay for what children learn when they give a gift and have the pleasure of watching the recipient open it.

Birthday parties are an opportunity to teach children that there is joy in giving. Most of the time, my kids desperately want the gift they are giving for themselves (and have usually lobbied me vigorously to buy them one too). So for them to take something they really wanted and give it to a friend, that’s a big step for a child. Watching the friend open it, and hopefully share the enthusiasm for the gift, is a gratifying pay-off.

Of course, hurt feelings can’t be eliminated. It will happen from time to time that the birthday child responds unenthusiastically, or downright negatively, to the prized gift. But there’s a lesson to be learned then as well—the virtues of graciousness and tact. And I’ve yet to see hurt feelings that can’t be wiped away with some ice cream or a whack at the piñata.

A fear of something so fleeting as jealousy or hurt feelings should not deny our children the chance at something more lasting and positive: to experience the satisfaction of a gift well given and to learn the social skills and courtesies that will serve them well long after the candles have been blown out.